An Unyielding Revolution: ODA’s Eran Chen on the Battle Against Banality in New York City

Eran Chen approaches architectural design at an urban scale.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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Eran Chen is thinking big.

While many architects occupy themselves with the problem-solving challenges of individual buildings, the founding principal of international architecture firm ODA understands that — to fundamentally improve the lives of those city-dwellers — design must be approached at an urban scale. With a deep understanding of the firm’s home city of New York, Chen is well placed to orchestrate change at a macro level, and this is reflected by ODA’s burgeoning project list — some 40 buildings across the Big Apple are either under construction or on the drawing board, each one aiming to reshape the skyline to the benefit of its eight million residents.

This incredible depth of experience — not to mention a penchant for radical architectural solutions — also makes Chen an ideal candidate to analyze the merits of architecture in different contexts around the globe. It is therefore fantastic news that the architect is the newest juror for Architizer’s fifth annual A+Awards — the world’s largest awards program for architecture and products. Chen joins a list of over 300 creative luminaries to run the rule over this year’s entrants, and his expert contribution will add considerable gravitas to the selection process and eventual winners.

Architizer sat down with Chen to discuss ODA’s strategy for creating better cities, the most exciting projects the firm is currently working on and what Chen will be looking out for when judging this year’s A+Awards submissions.

Kent Avenue by ODA, New York

Paul Keskeys: Let’s start from the beginning — how has your architectural career unfolded thus far and what drove you to found ODA?

Eran Chen: I founded ODA New York in mid-2007. After having lived and worked in NYC for eight years, I felt a deep connection to it, and yet a growing frustration with the typologies of its newest architecture. I felt that the demanding realities of such fast-growing cities like NYC have reduced architecture to facade design on ever-growing extruded glass boxes. The resulting decreased connectivity and lack of authenticity and context have generally diminished the qualities that support people’s sense of well-being. I felt a strong desire and obligation to test new ideas, so starting my own firm seemed to be the only way to do so.

ODA describes its work as leading a “quiet but unyielding revolution” to improve the living conditions in cities. What are your main strategies for doing that?

In general, we approach each design from the perspective that architecture is not only about building things within a space, but is mostly about the spaces between the things we build. So with every commission, we explore new ways to evolve beyond the prototypical extruded box format, which seals people within four walls, and instead, to ferret out potential pockets that we can mold to encourage human interaction.

Armed with an expertise in zoning and building codes, we work within the system to exploit it, consistently uncovering new and unconventional methods for maximizing voids and gaps wherein people can connect — both with each other and with nature. We believe that greenery is a vital and often-overlooked element in urban architecture, so our designs blur the line between living intimately and looking far beyond, between indoors and out. In this way, we’ve resolved to replace the dogma of resigned and comprised living with one that enriches our lives and adapts to our needs — that prioritizes our physical and psychological well-being.

10 Jay Street by ODA, Brooklyn, N.Y. Viewing on mobile? Click here.

You have a number of extraordinary, unconventional residential projects in progress across New York City. Which are the standout projects for you, and why?

In Dumbo, ODA designed 10 Jay Street, a waterfront office complex combining a historic building with a cutting-edge 3D facade, which was recently approved by Landmarks. We’re also currently working on two of the largest sites ever developed in Bushwick as well as a waterfront site on Kent Ave. in Williamsburg. Additionally, we’ve been asked to conceptualize and design some incredibly transformative buildings in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, London and San Francisco.

What is the most exciting project on your drawing board right now, and why?

One of our most exciting projects is a 1.3-million-square-foot mixed-use project in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which is currently under construction. In this project, we are flipping the NYC grid system inside out, opening typically internal courtyards to the public as well as building-dwellers.

It’s a bit like overlapping the NYC grid with an old European city — instead of organizing some buildings on an empty lot, we carve public and communal spaces out of a solid mass, creating a network of pedestrian streets and courtyards framed by commercial and amenity spaces. The result is a true departure from the systematic, dead-end live-work boxes into a three-dimensional living experience. This project takes our notion of “unboxing buildings” and applies it on a city scale.

Rheingold Brewery by ODA, Bushwick, N.Y.; image by bloomimages

With over 40 projects underway in the city, ODA is helping to transform Manhattan. How do you see the city evolving over the next 10 to 20 years, both architecturally and programmatically?

Manhattan’s growth over the last decade, like many other major cities around the world, was characterized by reflexive adaptation to the ever-growing demand for housing and office space — mainly vertically extruded, expressive of corporate power and resulting in the largest man-made sculpture ever created, which is Manhattan.

The qualities that once existed on tree-lined streets with townhomes were lost among the mid-rise and high-rise towers emerging on the same streets. Over time, the balance between private and public spaces was radically distorted and, with that, we surrendered certain rudimentary elements that we need as human beings. We’ve been tricked into believing the myths sold to us by developers and city planners — that higher is better and that interaction between man and nature can be replaced with “amenities” like a gym or lounge or kid’s playground on some basement floor.

We have to restore all that we’ve lost, but we have to do it in a new way, one that reconciles density and vertical living with fragmentation and porosity — individualism with community, man-made with nature. Now that we’ve taken full control of our universe, we need to design new types of environments, make buildings that aren’t dead ends, but rather ongoing, growing networks.

Rendering of East 44th Street by ODA, New York

We need not only imitate nature to inspire design, we should also use design to inspire nature. This vision will take time, but I’m confident that within the next 20 years we will find buildings and neighborhoods that look and function more like living organisms than extruded boxes, more like hills and mountains than shiny curtain walls, more like vertical villages than vertical towers.

For you, what are the greatest challenges facing young architects today, and how can they overcome them?

We are all bombarded with endless images of magnificent buildings and structures from around the world. Images on social media become more powerful than reality, and buildings are evaluated for form rather than merit.

With this overwhelming visual distraction, it’s hard for young architects to ask the simple basic questions, and even harder to answer them. If we forget that architecture, at its most basic form, is a tool for improving people’s lives, we also forget why we make the choices we do. I always push our architects at ODA to ask the most basic questions: Why are we doing this? What purpose does it serve? And how does it make us better?

Kent Avenue by ODA, New York

Which of your peers, either from the past or the present, do you find most inspirational, and why?

I was recently introduced to Neri Oxman, an American-Israeli architect, designer and professor at the MIT Media Lab, where she leads the Mediated Matter research group. She is known for art and architecture that combine design, biology, computing and material engineering. Her work frames the notion of a shift from nature-inspired design to design-inspired nature.

Which is your favorite winning project from last year’s A+Awards, and why?

I really liked Naman Retreat Pure Spa by MIA Design Studio. I think they found that magical balance between inside and out, built and planted.

What unique architectural qualities will you be looking out for when it comes to judging the projects for this year’s A+Awards?

Porosity, engagement, authenticity, connectivity and sectional complexity.

What would be your dream project commission?

I’d like to design a real mixed-used project in an intense, urban setting, with light industrial uses and creative office space along with residential, educational and cultural components. These are the projects of the future.

I’d like to change the way we look at the built environment so that our buildings are not just conforming contextually or performing technically, but rather making enormous strides towards engaging and connecting us back to nature and one another.

For more information on how to submit your project or product for the fifth annual A+Awards, click here.